Things, Thoughts _________________________________________________________________
& Other Stuff
Travel Notes #1
12 September 2020
We live fascinated by other people’s cultural habits.
What we find unusual or what we recognise as different from our reality, always
seems to us like something incredible we’ve never seen before.
When travelling, as tourists (I hate this word but it
is what it is) and compulsive admirers of the "very-typical", we seek
the most authentic experience in an attempt to absorb as much as possible all the
aspects from another culture. However, we often end up reducing that experience
to the places that everyone passes by, the sights that everyone sees (and
photographs) or the sites that everyone visits. When we see something or
someone that arouses our instinctive and harmless curiosity, we look at it as
if we were in a museum, and end up becoming ridiculous and turning other
people's culture into a real show.
The beauty of travelling is not in visiting the most
famous monuments, the most well-known places, eating in the best restaurants or
getting to know the local products. Its true magic lies in the real discovery
of the Other and what they have to tell us or what they choose to share with
us. In the conversations in a café, in the movement of a restaurant, in the
confusion or silence of a street, in the way the sunlight hits a façade, in the
intensity of a cup of coffee, in the beauty of a still life on a terrace table,
in the people’s windows, in the ruins, in the stories we come across, in other
people’s conversations, in the music that was playing at that moment in that
place, in the smile of a "good morning" or the warmth of a
"thank you": in the memories.
The journey is
spontaneous. Its charm comes to us without much effort. I call it seizing the
moment in a silent dialogue with the outside world.
The Relic Seller
Athens - October 2019
It was the last day of our trip. The day of last minute souvenirs. I've always been against the classic idea of souvenirs. The memories you keep from your travelling experiences are the best gift of all.
In the middle of the hectic, noisy and confusing streets of the city we noticed a small and discreet shop with a special charm in the middle of all the hustle and bustle and the hordes of people around us. A tiny shop full of Orthodox religious artefacts, where the eyes get lost, the mind is dazzled and the soul founds itself. The front window was completely covered with objects of different sizes. Amidst the colourfulness of the street, the darkness of its interior was mysterious, but it didn't seem to capture anyone else's attention. Only we noticed it. I entered without hesitation.
It reeked of incense and you could barely see the sun as soon as you stepped through the door. Inside, absolute silence, as if the world had disappeared. The absence of natural light is compensated for by all the gold covering, almost entirely carefully crafted relics. I had no intention of buying anything, I simply felt tempted to enter and I immediately realised that this was not just another Orthodox relic shop in Athens. It was a shop owned by someone who really knew their stuff and weren't trying to push anything on me. However, nobody showed up for a while.
A short time later, an elderly man came up behind us, shyly introducing his business and all the things he sells. I don't really know how to explain it, but somehow I created a certain empathy with him. He automatically struck me as a genuine, truthful person. A real local. Between "look at this" and "take this one" we talked about Greece, what we had already seen or not seen, the economic situation and of course, the migration crisis. In the middle of the typical conversation between salesman and tourists, he asks the classic question - "Where are you from? - to which I reply - Portugal. It was at that moment, that he said something that left me thinking for the days that followed:
"Ah... I really like Portugal. It's the only country in Europe that isn't finished. All the other countries are gone."
He didn't say anything else and I was a bit embarrassed to ask too. I didn't think he wanted to elaborate. Some of us bought some simple things, exchanged some more ideas and said goodbye. What is certain, is that I was intrigued by that sentence for the next few days.
I spent the rest of the day thinking about that sentence and what he might or might not have meant. I don't think he meant Portugal in economic or political terms. Certainly not. I think he was referring to identity. An identity that he and many Greeks feel it has been disappearing due to a massive wave of multicultural immigration that Greece in particular, thanks to its geographical position next to Turkey, has seen in recent years due to the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East. This is the main gateway to Europe. To a refuge. For those who come fleeing war and misery. For those who come looking for a better life. Why can't the identity of a people be shared across cultures, with others?
For those who have been to Athens, you know that it is not the classical idea of an European capital. You can walk through streets full of people, commerce and life, or you can look to the side and see streets totally empty and full of misery. It is not like Rome, Madrid or Lisbon. It combines Western and Eastern Europe. The one that most Europeans despise and no longer even consider to be Europe.
In this sense, the salesman considers that not only Greece is lost, but all countries except Portugal. As if Portugal had a life of its own above all the other countries in Europe. Apparently, for some, being isolated at the edge of Europe has its own value. Yes, we have a very strong connection to what is ours. We always had. That pride taken to the extreme over everything and everyone, very Portuguese, very Southern. We take our traditions, family and customs very seriously. Portugal, or any other country, has no reason to feel its culture threatened. Multiculturalism should not be seen as a threat, but as something that makes us richer.
Does it even make sense to discuss identity issues these days? Everything is so global nowadays. Is it so problematic to think of an identity together? Can diversity and sharing co-exist without conflict? Where is the sense of community that united Europe from the beginning?
I deeply believe that the most important thing will be to never stop knowing how to recognise ourselves: to know how to look inside ourselves, preserve the past and look to the future with the eyes of those who are constantly searching for who they are and who are not afraid to reinvent themselves.
A Train to Padova
Trento - Padova - 26 May 2019
European Election Day and I couldn't vote because I wasn't in Portugal. I honestly hoped that by now the voting process for an election of this size would be more accessible and inclusive to any European moving within the Schengen area. Moving on from my frustration, towards the end of my trip through Northern Italy, I witnessed a unique moment, almost as if it were predestined.
In the midst of several train journeys, I caught a train from Trento to Padova, coming from Germany. It was the only one that stopped there that day, so I bought a ticket right away. It was all in german, so I couldn't understand where my seat was. I just sat down in a random seat.
Next to me was an old couple sitting facing each other. They spoke English to each other, but I don't think they were british. He was reading a book and eating butter biscuits and she was embroidering. They must have been travelling for a good few hours as they already had a whole camp of backpacks, coats and snacks set up around them.
Trento is in the mountainous north-east of Italy, in a wonderful valley already touching the Alps. A village in the middle of the mountains that looks like something out of a fairytale. The train journey till there was absolutely fascinating. The journey out was just as beautiful or even better.
At a certain point, dazzled by what was not happening outside, I notice the lady embroidering a map of Europe with different icons of European culture, from monuments, typical gastronomy and figures. Not even on purpose, something like this pops up in front of me at this very time. A time when I have been thinking so much about Europe and the idea of being European. On top of that, on the day of the European Elections. She was very excited planning the drawing, with an instruction book she followed attentively. She often asks her husband for his opinion on what colours she should use. I can sense the happiness and motivation in her voice: she really wants to make a perfect embroidery of a perfect continent.
He, on the other hand, does not lift his eyes from the book and does not show much interest in what she says. Faced with this indifference, she constantly struggles with the colours and shapes, often whispering to herself. She keeps on questioning him and after a few attempts she gives up. After a couple of minutes of pure silence, he raises his eyes from the book and says the only sentence he said during that trip:
"What does it matter? By the time you finish that, Europe will be over."
These words struck me in such a way that I really thought there could be no greater coincidence. What else could happen? It was a sign for my Europeanist musings, for sure.
I started thinking about the countless meanings of that phrase. There they were: the fervent Europeanist and the anti-European, side by side in communion. This idea of the "end of Europe" or the indifference towards the European project that came out of him with the greatest of naturalness, made me question the calmness with which we take Europe for granted. Or that a large part of Europeans don't even have an idea of Europe. Possibly he was just referring to the Elections. Perhaps I am dramatising the situation. But I still found it disturbingly fascinating.
I see in this couple a clear portrait of European society: a mix between dream and reality. We have long idealised an Europe that has been crumbling in many ways, causing people to lose faith in the European project and remain indifferent to this collective identity. Now more than ever we need to be realistic because it is too late to be pessimistic. On the other hand, we must never stop idealising an Europe, because if we do, it means we have given up completely. After all, what would Europe be without the dream.